Further to my last post about feeling damaged, I want to refocus on a more elusive element of our complex lives: actual intimacy.
Intimacy is different from sex. Intimacy is quiet, exploratory, gentle. It’s connecting with others, usually emotionally, deeply.
We all know or think we know what sex is. It’s the Act, whatever that act is for you.
Intimacy, or an attempt at intimacy, often precedes sex, or develops after sex. Apparently. I say ‘apparently’, because for decades intimacy made my skin crawl. I felt that intimacy ‘wanted only one thing’ — sex. There are reasons for this which are here worth spelling out: my father was not a violent abuser. He in fact behaved with me like a ‘lover’ might. He was coercive, seemed ‘loving’. In fact, I now know that he believed he was ‘in love’ with me. He said as much. PLEASE KEEP IN MIND HERE THAT I WAS 11, 12, 13, 14 YEARS OLD.
He would say that he wanted to ‘show me’ what relationship were, for when I was ‘older’.
So it’s not a big leap to see how all subsequent intimacy in my life felt like a lie to me, for years. It felt wrong and disgusting. It made me feel sick.
My answer to this as a young person was to jump straight to sex. My belief was that this is what men wanted. And I couldn’t bear anything gentle or loving anyway — so I believed I was simply saving time, ‘getting it over with’.
For many, many years — well into my now nearly 34-year marriage — I struggled with tenderness. I struggled with soft words. I struggled with caresses. It was an enormous, at times insurmountable, challenge for me to be ‘present’ in times of intimacy. Sex without intimacy was comparatively ‘easy’, as an Act, to more or less ignore. It’s intimacy which has been such a source of distress for me. It’s learning and believing that not everything has to lead to sex. That intimacy has its own place in my life. That I’m not always being ‘used’.
Sexual abuse can take many forms. Perpetrators utilise different methods as a means to abuse, no doubt according to their own pathologies. But I think it’s fair to say that a huge proportion of sexual abuse takes place under the auspices of ‘love’, and ‘specialness’, particularly intra-familial abuse or abuse within family contacts. The abuser establishes the emotional parameters of the abuse, and most of the time they are that the abuse is ‘good’, ‘nice’, ‘right’. So in this world, if the child objects or is hesitant — then they are rejecting the abuser, who after all is only ‘loving’ and treating the child as ‘special’ — and, the child’s narrative goes, who wouldn’t want to be treated like that?
As I have said so many times on this blog: I was lucky. I was comparatively older when the abuse started (11), and I therefore had awareness of other places I’d lived, and that others (my grandparents) outside my nuclear family really loved me. I knew that what my father said was love was not love. But I still could not escape, or push him away, etc…. Because the one thing he did manage to convince me of was that life as I knew it would fall apart if I did anything ‘wrong’.
I was lucky too in that it was ‘only’ a matter of ten years before I understood, deep down, real love. Before I gave myself over to it. Intimacy took much longer to unfurl in an authentic way, but with patience and understanding, it did happen.
So many survivors just aren’t this lucky, for so many reasons. But one thing is for sure: trust in what is good and natural and real about life is too often completely destroyed by sexual abuse. Trust in ourselves, trust in others. Intimacy — the delicate and precious balance of the expressions of love between partners, close friends, and parents and children — is so fragile. For many survivors, me included, intimacy heralds danger. It’s one of the first things to go, and one of the last to find its way home.
This excerpt from my memoir Learning to Survive details my early disconnected relationships with intimacy and sex. It also includes mention of being raped; I am certain that my vulnerability to this alarming situation was the result of being sexually abused in childhood.
I wait tables every summer between my college years, and that first summer, 1983, I return to the restaurant in Roanoke. I live with my mother again, enjoying the freedom of knowing that everything is once again temporary.
There is a new dishwasher at the restaurant, Steve. Like me, he’s in between years at college. He’s soft-spoken, slightly chubby, wears glasses, reads books, and really, really likes me. For the first time in my life, I go on dates. He’s lovely. We see films, we talk, we make out.
I decide, I’m not sure why, but I think amongst young women – abused or not abused – that it’s a common feeling – I decide that I want to get this virginity business over with. Though I don’t say it exactly like that to Steve. He keeps asking me if I’m sure, keeps saying he’s honoured – and one day we do it in his bed at his house, when his parents are out. It hurts, and I bleed. I rush through it, pressing him on, feeling nothing, wondering right after, for a moment, if I have used him. At the end, he looks crestfallen. But I’m glad it’s done.
Steve. He is so sweet, so loving, and becomes more so after we have sex. Whereas I, in part of a larger pattern that I will repeat again and again over the next two and a half years, become less attracted to him, less content, less interested generally. The more someone likes me, it seems, the less I like them, the less I care at all what I do, or when, or with whom. But this is not something I recognise for years. Steve and I stay together for the summer. When I return to Oberlin however, again in a pattern I repeat over and over, I never respond to his letters, which strike me as pleading then, almost pathetic. He eventually takes the hint, and I never see or hear from him again.
Returning to Oberlin without my virginity seems to set me upon a particular path. In the very first week – before classes even start – I go to bed with one of the dorm monitors. He is blonde, a hippy type, and empathetic. I remember this incident in particular because he, unlike so many, stops. Stops me. Doesn’t want to rush. And in the end, we don’t actually have sex, because he feels he mustn’t, being older than me by two years. As I know now, I need this taking stock. But I didn’t know this then.
That same semester, something else happens. One night, when my roommate is out, very late, there is a knock at my door. I am in my pyjamas. I open the door a crack. It’s a guy from down the hall – Wesley – and he wants to come in. I don’t really know Wesley. At all. He’s a football player I think. Well built, and I find out, very strong.
I let him in. And before I know what is happening, he is kissing me and taking off my clothes. He then proceeds to – and I find it hard now to even write this, having only acknowledged this in recent years – rape me. I only know this for sure because there is no consent, and I do know that I don’t want this; he just ploughs on, intent on getting what he wants. I do not fight him however. I do not feel anything. I am waiting for it to be over. He then leaves.
At the time, I see nothing wrong with what he does, except that it catches me off guard, and that I don’t really understand why he does it. I remember thinking that I had no idea he even knew I existed. But I accept it.
I do not tell anyone, not even my closest friends. I never have another encounter with him, or speak to him, or speak to any of his friends. Now I can see though that I retreat to stone: I am not there. Losing my virginity does not, it turns out, make me ‘normal’, as I think I hoped; in fact sex and everything surrounding it just divide me even more from myself. I perform what I don’t feel, and I wonder time and again what is wrong with me. I feel dirty, faintly disgusted, and disinterested – still, and after all.
For the next two and a half years, I go on to have crushes, to feel something close to love, but sex is something else. I have numerous casual sexual relationships, in overlapping timeframes. Sometimes I even sleep with other people’s boyfriends. I have no boundaries. I am rarely without at least one person ‘on the go’. And yet: I know none of these relationships are very important to me. Even those with the most promising histories – Mark, whom I meet on a plane down to Texas, and Matt, a mature art historian student at Oberlin (who, as it turns out, has a girlfriend at home) – I know won’t last, almost from the start. Deep down, I suspect I am not capable of forming a relationship. I am willing to make the best of it, but I suspect – I know – that I am damaged, and somehow not worth it. I know too that these suspicions will ensure that I drift away from them, always and eventually.